Historically, female R&B artists do not necessarily come to the fore fully formed. For every Rihanna, there’s a Shontelle, an Alexis Jordan or a Kristinia DeBarge. A lack of creative control, an uncertainty about direction, or poor management and label decisions often results in a ropey first album with barely a hit to propel them into the second, if they even make it that far.
Tinashe’s foundation is more solid, forward-thinking and assured - it’s evident that she is both the face and brains of her operation. In fact with Tinashe, we’re probably looking at the most multi-faceted star to launch into the mainstream arena this year. She was a child model, a member of a girl band and had a recurring role in the TV show Two And A Half Men. Her music career began with three mixtapes which she wrote, performed, produced and engineered. This year, she steamrollered into the Billboard Top 40 with her bumping debut single “2 On” and earned a Top 20 album with her first studio release, Aquarius - a slick, innovative R&B record. She also found time to donate a track, "The Leap", on the newly released soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One, curated by Lorde. It's worth pointing out that Tinashe only turned 21 this year.
She's just finishing having her nails decked out in a Union Jack flag pattern when we speak to her about teenage rebellion, first drunken experiences and being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Noisey: Hello Tinashe. I’m going to ask you some questions that are not about music and then I’m going to ask you some questions about music, thus reversing the tried and tested interview technique of starting with boring stuff. So. On the Mean Girls lunch hall map, where would you be sitting?
Tinashe: Haha, what’s on there? Like the geeks, the nerds, the cool Asians? I don’t know, I was always the type of person who was friends with a couple of people so do I go on the miscellaneous table? I go into the extras. The person who doesn’t have a clique.
How many times did you get detention or worse?
Never! I was really good. I would feel really, really bad if I disappointed people so I would cry if I got detention. Actually I got detention once.
What was that for?
*deep sigh* Well, these boys in my class, they were talking to me and my friend and they got detention too. Then they got let out of detention and my teacher made me stay in.
That’s what I used to get detention for. And it would always just be me, as though I’d been talking to myself.
Right? I was mad. It was just stupid. Talking in class. Stupid.
Well you’ve just said you don’t like to disappoint people but, whatever. What was your most defiant act of teenage rebellion?
I ditched school once. I was in 9th grade so, maybe fourteen? I just didn’t want to be there so we got in somebody’s car and drove around. That was it. We didn’t even do anything cool, I’m so fucking lame. I also used to sneak out of the house sometimes.
Did you ever get caught?
Every time. My parents are like, psychic. I don’t know how the fuck they knew. They never woke up any other night, except for the nights I’d sneak out of the house. I’d get a call like “where are you?” and I’m just like “HOW DID YOU KNOW?”
Do you remember the first time you got drunk?
Yep. These are fun questions.
I think I was fifteen. It was the 4th of July and me and my friends wanted to get drunk, because that's what you do on the 4th of July. We were at a baseball tournament for our brothers, so we were out of town. We gave a homeless guy 20 bucks to get us some vodka. We put it in a water bottle and I’d never really drank before so I didn’t know how much you’re supposed to drink. I was there like “this is easy!” - chug chug chug - “this is fine!” - chug chug chug. Before I know it, I can’t walk, I’m falling all over the place. Our parents found us! Oh man. That was bad.
Our first drunken experiences are very similar. The next morning my mum said, “do you feel bad?” And I said I was fine even though I had an unbelievable hangover.
That’s what mine said: “You’re never gonna drink again, are you?” I was like “Never!” I was so embarrassed.
What happened the last time you got drunk?
Oh. It was probably last night. Nowadays I usually end up ordering food and hanging out with my dancers. I tour with my dancers so we go out a lot and we always end up ordering a lot of food after the club.
What kind of food?
Fast food, because it’s the only thing open. And it tastes the best. Just give me something greasy.
Have you ever done something you could probably go to jail for?
Yeah. Smoke weed.
Is that definitely a jailable offence?
Well, it’s definitely not legal. Except for some places in America. In California, where I live, it’s legal but you have to have a medical marijuana card. And you still can’t just walk down the street with it. It has to be in your house.
What do you need to get a medical marijuana card?
Anything: cramps, back problems, insomnia. They’re just like “Okay!” They don’t really care.
Well I won’t lie, I asked that question in the hope you would spill a deep dark secret.
Like what? One time I stole a car? Actually that would be so badass.
What car would you steal in this hypothetical scenario?
A Lamborghini, or something fast at least, so I could get away.
That’s a very practical response. Okay, I’m going to ask you all the music questions now.
All the boring questions.
Yes, all the questions you’ve been asked a million times before. What did you learn during your time in a girl band?
Um… it definitely taught me all the basics of being an artist, like recording in a major studio, being on tour.
You went on tour with Justin Bieber didn’t you?
Yeah, it was great. He was selling out every show; so playing to 20,000 people is a dope experience.
Do you still speak to the other members of the band? Are they still in the business?
Yeah, not all of them are still in the business. One got married, the others are doing various things. But I’m the only one who really actively pursued music.
So from that experience, you then went on to do the mixtapes where it was just you doing everything - writing, producing, engineering - so what was it like moving from being the sole voice in the room to signing with a label and collaborating with writers and producers?
The hardest thing for me was to get people to understand what I wanted. Some people didn’t necessarily respect my opinion. They thought, "oh she’s just a cute girl signed to this label, whatev-er”. So it took a while to establish a certain level of respect.
Do you think it was harder because you were a girl?
Absolutely. And young. Both of those made it hard. And because I’d never had a hit before. So it was like “I have hits. I’m old. I’m a dude. You’re not gonna tell me what this song should sound like.” But really it’s my song, you know?
You would think, because you did do everything on those mixtapes, people would actually realise you probably know what you’re talking about.
They just didn’t pay attention to the mixtapes at that point. Now they do because they know that I’m legit but at the time it was like: “Oh, who’s this girl we have a session with? Okay, whatever.”
Did you end up compromising on anything short term that in the future you’re gonna come back and “fix”?
Yes! My album cover was not the album cover that I wanted. The picture on the back of the album is the cover that I wanted, but they said I couldn’t use it because it covered half my face. Which is stupid because it’s not like you can’t just go on Google and find out what I look like. I thought it added an element of mystery and it was just better. So next time I’m gonna be like, “remember when you made me change my album cover? We’re not doing that this time!”
I’ve heard they make sure you can see the artist's eyes…
Yeah, but what is that? It’s really not that basic anymore. You don’t have to follow the rules every time. It was annoying to me because I spent so much time on the music and I had so much control then just at the last minute they were like, “the cover that you want? You can’t have it.” I was so pissed. It wasn’t so bad, because I did pick the image we went with, it’s not like I hated it.
Did the idea for the album shoot come from you in the first place?
Yeah, I wanted it to be mysterious and that’s why the cover I did end up choosing I’m not looking at the camera. I just didn’t want it to be so commercial and all “Here’s a headshot! Cheese!” That's just boring.
Which songs from Aquarius would you work out to, pre-drink to, make out to, play during a high-speed car chase?
“Watch Me Work”, which is a bonus track on the Best Buy edition is a good one to work out to. I’d pre-drink to “How Many Times” because it’s vibey. It sets the tone for a fun night. I’d make out to “Cold Sweat”. I don’t know for high speed car chase! Maybe “2 On”?
So far we’re pretty much on the same wave-length. What song would you play at your arch-enemy’s funeral?
I don’t think I have one. There’s definitely people on my shit list, but I don’t know if I would necessarily call them my arch-enemy. But if I had one, I’d probably play “Bet” because it’s like, “haha, you’re dead, I’m not”. That’s so fucked up.
Did you have any reservations about working with Nick Jonas because he’s…
…very Jonas Brother-y?
Yes, very wholesome.
The bottom line is it comes down to the music for me. If the song was shit or corny, then I wouldn’t have done it. But I thought it was a good song. He’s just doing his thing! He’s dope.
You’ve worked with quite a few male artists, there’s some great collaborations on the album, but are there any female artists you’d like to get on stage or in the studio with?
I would basically like to work with any female artist. I think more women need to collaborate. I would love to work with Emily Haines, Little Dragon or Karen O. That would be sick.
On that note, you’ve got a track on The Hunger Games soundtrack which was curated by Lorde. How did you get involved in that?
She reached out, or “her people” reached out to my manager and asked if I had any songs I thought would be good for The Hunger Games soundtrack. I’d written “The Leap” for my album, but I think we were in the process of deciding the tracklist and we didn’t know if it was going to make it, so I sent it over and they freaked out about it so I was like, “okay, put it on the soundtrack!” It was that simple.
Well while we’re still talking about girls - Kelly Rowland was saying recently how excited she was to be working with a female producer on her new material, and as you are obviously a female producer, would you like to produce for other artists at some point?
Oh yeah. Maybe in the future but right now I’m so busy, I can’t focus on making other people’s music when I’m still making my own. But when I have extra time, for sure.
What visions do you have for your stage shows once you start hitting bigger venues and getting bigger budgets?
First of all, I need a toaster. I’ve always wanted a toaster. Fire. Twenty dancers. A full band. All that awesome stuff.
I know that you mean something that pops you up from the stage, but I'm going to let our readers believe that you just really love toast. Ok bye Tinashe, you have been really great.
Follow Grace on Twitter: @OneOfThoseFaces
Photographer: Alex de Mora
Photographer's assistant: Theo Cottle
Art direction and stylist: Kylie Griffiths
Stylist’s Assistant: Thomas Ramshaw and Mali Hood
Set and Props: Marisha Greene
Hair: Sami Knight using Tigi Bedhead
Makeup: Crystabel Riley at Stella Creative Artists using MAC cosmetics
Nails: Cherrie Snow from WAH